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Public worker lawsuit seeks to overturn Wisconsin’s anti-collective bargaining law

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Public worker lawsuit seeks to overturn Wisconsin’s anti-collective bargaining law
By AFSCME Staff, AFSCME Council 32 ·

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin workers have sued the state, seeking to overturn a 2011 law championed by former Gov. Scott Walker that all but ended collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers.

The lawsuit, filed in state court on Nov. 30, says the Wisconsin statute is unconstitutional because it divided public employees into two groups — a disfavored class and a favored class — and then imposed severe burdens just on employees in the disfavored group, violating their right to equal protection under the law.

This disfavored group — which includes most state workers — can’t negotiate with employers over anything other than base wages (with raises capped at inflation), and can’t even be represented by a union at all unless they jump through the hoops of burdensome annual recertification elections. 

As the lawsuit notes, these recertification elections require the union to win a majority of all workers in a bargaining unit — not just those who cast a vote. That makes it possible for workers to lose their union even if 100% of workers vote for the union, which has happened in some cases.

Under the challenged law, the favored class of employees is called “public safety” and consists of some firefighters, law enforcement officers, and the state’s motor vehicle inspectors. But this favored class excludes other public safety employees, including AFSCME members who police the state’s parks as wardens for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

So while, for example, the state motor vehicle inspectors’ collective bargaining rights remained intact under the Walker-era law, collective bargaining rights have been stripped from the vast majority of state employees including many who protect the public.

"I worked for 13 years as a firefighter paramedic in Wisconsin, where I had the freedom to negotiate; however, when I became law enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources, I immediately lost my right to a voice on the job," said Ben Gruber, a conservation warden, president of AFSCME Local 1215 and plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“We are an essential part of our state's public safety system, often working in dangerous conditions and making arrests miles away from any backup. We are certified as law enforcement by the same state board, but my co-workers and I are denied the same union rights enjoyed by other public safety personnel. It's time that public sector workers across Wisconsin have our freedoms restored to us,” Gruber said.

Plaintiffs include Gruber and other union members and the following unions: the Abbotsford Education Association (WEAC/NEA), AFSCME Local 47, AFSCME Local 1215, Beaver Dam Education Association (WEAC/NEA), SEIU Wisconsin, Teaching Assistants Association (TAA/AFT) Local 3220 and Teamsters Local 695. 

Union members are filing the lawsuit now because of the dire situation that exists in their workplaces. Low pay, staffing shortages and worsening working conditions are hurting their ability to deliver public services to the communities that count on them every day.

With worker organizing on the rise, and public support for unions growing, workers are calling out Wisconsin law for what it is — blatant discrimination that limits workers’ freedom to earn a fair wage, provide for their families, advocate for safety on the job and enjoy a secure retirement.

Read the lawsuit here.

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